The year was 2005, when this obscure character appeared out of nowhere with the debut album of Cerebus Effect asking the raters of Gnosis (the famous online Prog database) to listen to the music carefully and to evaluate it impartially. Well, not only that record immediately attracted the attention for its complexity and for the music quality, but that project was soon followed by other interesting ones. Right now many of us have come to know and appreciate Dan Britton’s creative talent, especially for his album with Birds And Buildings and Deluge Grander, two bands that just released, almost simultaneously, their new works. We talked about this and much more in this interview. Enjoy.
You are known in the Prog World for a number of projects, why you decided to go so many separate ways at the same time?
That’s just how it worked out. Back in 2005, my goal was to form one and only one band I could devote all my energy to, but for all the groups I’ve been in, the other members have other things going on they’d rather spend their time on. Rather than try to force them to spend time on new material, I’ve found that it’s better to just embark on a separate project. With all these bands going on simultaneously, sometimes they’ll each finish an album around the same time--that’s what happened with Birds and Buildings’ “Multipurpose Trap” and Deluge Grander’s “Heliotians.”
What are the elements that best characterize each of your projects and what do they have in common?
One thing that distinguishes one project from another is who plays on them. For example, Malcolm McDuffie plays drums on the Birds and Buildings albums, and I think his playing really adds a lot of character to it. I’ve come to regard Deluge Grander as a more symphonic kind of band, while Birds and Buildings is more jazz. Of course, most albums I’ve been involved with, I’ve been the composer of between 50 and 100 percent of the material, so that probably gives them some similarities.
To which project do you feel most fond of?
That’s a tough one, but I think my favorite albums so far have been Deluge Grander’s “The Form of the Good” and Birds and Buildings’ “Multipurpose Trap”.Apart from these main groups, Birds And Buildings, Deluge Grander and Cerebus Effect, I’ve read about other strange ideas such as Fun Duck Hotel, Stentorian or Tributaries, do you want to talk about them?
These may or may not ever come to fruition. Fun Duck Hotel was supposed to have catchy songs with lyrics in English and Arabic, with the goal that listening to the songs several times would help you learn Arabic. Stentorian is something Brett d’Anon has talked about and even made some demos for that he and I would both like to do someday, but we just haven’t gotten around to it yet- it would be something like Sleep’s “Dopesmoker” album crossed with Museo Rosenbach. Tributaries is a name I’ve been assuming I would use for a variety of “covers” projects I have in mind, but covers projects are inherently a little yucky, so I’m going to wait on those for a while.
I've seen that you scheduled other releases for Deluge Grander in the next ten years! Will you manage to hold on this project? Do you want to talk us about the upcoming releases and how will they be structured?
So far, it’s going ok. The big question for me was how the first one (“Heliotians”) would be received, due to the strange packaging. Since I sold out of the first copies so quickly, that went about as well as I could have ever hoped. Work is continuing on the second and third albums in the seven-album series, and there’s a small chance one or both might be finished by the end of 2014. “Lunarians” will be a little more towards the classical side. “Oceanarium” is supposed to combine a lot of the ideas from “Heliotians” and “Lunarians” into new pieces.
Why will some releases be limited editions and others not?
One reason for the seven-album plan was to release a lot of the same music in different formats for different audiences--for example, releasing handmade LPs for the retro-prog crowd, and then only releasing the best music for a more general audience.
At the time I’m writing the 205 copies of "Heliotians" are all sold out. What will people do, if they remained without their copy? Any hope for a reprint?
I did not expect them to sell out that quickly. I am working on making an additional 160 copies, though this time without lyrics written out, which would still have the LP, CD, and handmade artwork. Hopefully, people who bought one of the first 205 won’t mind that I’m making 160 more. Several people said I should print 1000 regular CDs, but I won’t do that, since I think people who bought some of the original 205 would rightfully feel misled if I did so.
One big disadvantage of releasing “Heliotians” as we did was not having a regular $10-15 CD. I wanted to keep attention on the handmade LPs, and I thought releasing a regular CD would detract from that, plus I hope to release all 7 albums together someday in a cheap box like those Original Album Classics or Progressive Italia boxes. But in communicating with many people, it looks like having a regular $10-15 CD might not detract as much as I thought, so for “Lunarians”, I’m planning to make 365 numbered LP/CDs with handmade artwork and an additional 1000 regular CDs.
Is your role in all of your projects always central? What weight do the musicians who collaborate with you have to characterize your compositions?
Usually I come up with some demos at home, give them to the other people in the group, sometimes with suggestions for what they should play, and then we rehearse. Sometimes the other people will come up with their own stuff, but sometimes they’ll play what I suggested to the tiniest detail. I actually prefer that they come up with their own stuff sometimes, but I can’t really complain if they play what I suggested either.
I have noticed that you always choose dull sounds, not plasticized, and ultimately vintage to all intents. It 'been a conscious decision?
I’m not sure what you mean by ‘dull’ sounds, but maybe it’s meant as a compliment? :-) There are some sounds that make me cringe, usually stuff that sounds very 1980’s or fake, but there are also some 1970’s sounds like certain analog synthesizer sounds that I don’t like either. I also can’t stand the sound of a muted trumpet. I also don’t like the tendency for many bands nowadays to have very similar sounds across their entire album- the djent metal stuff is fun and intense for a few minutes, but then it gets a bit old, and I’d rather hear them try something new. But I’m not a stickler for “analog purity”- most of the keyboard sounds I use are from modern, digital keyboards.
Would you like to tell us how the idea to put on your own label, Emkog Records, was born? What are the major management difficulties and what are the greatest satisfactions?
Back in 2006, I figured I would release the first Deluge Grander album (“August in the Urals”) with the Emkog label written on the back. I didn’t really know how the world of record labels worked, but I figured I should try to do as much as I could on my own, and if it didn’t go well, then maybe I’d try to get on a bigger label. After 8 years, I think it’s gone fine, and no label has ever approached me with any kind of deal, so that’s probably how it will stay. I guess the biggest satisfaction is seeing how many people are still willing to pay $5 or so for a download, $10-15 for a CD, and even $30-50 for an LP, even with all the good music you can hear for free on the Internet. It seems like many people buy stuff like this specifically to support musicians who make music they like, so that’s really gratifying.
Judging from your projects you seem to be a really bizarre person. What adjectives would you use to describe yourself as a person and your music?
Well, hopefully I’m not too bizarre! :-) I think I’m pretty analytical, individualistic, and hard-working. I try to get along with people, but I don’t enjoy mindless socializing at parties or events. Musically, I usually try to make music that’s diverse, catchy, and complex, qualities that are hard to maintain simultaneously.
How did your passion for Prog and for complex music start?I’ve been listening to progressive music since I was around 12 years old. First was “Duke” by Genesis, followed shortly by “Nursery Cryme” and “Foxtrot”, which I discovered when I was about 12 years old, then Yes, King Crimson, Gentle Giant, etc. Then I bought an issue of the “Goldmine” magazine around 1995 and found out about all the less famous European groups from the 1970s as well as some modern groups. Shortly after that I started using the Internet, and as you might imagine, that led to many new discoveries too.
What are your future goals as a musician?
Keep releasing albums, hopefully 1 per year or so, and then eventually actually get a group that can perform some of that material well in a live setting.
Do you think your projects are intended for particular audiences, or that Prog lovers can appreciate them all crosswise?
That’s a good question. It seems to me like a lot of modern “Prog” bands are very specialized. There’s the stoner-retro prog, the avant-garde/RIO crowd, the neo-prog crowd, jazz-rock/fusion, prog-metal, avant-metal, etc. Most modern prog bands fit pretty squarely into one of those subgenres. What made bands like Yes great was that they did a little bit of all that stuff. That is probably my favorite aspect of “progressive music”- the eclecticism. I think some of that is lost with a lot of modern proggy bands, but that’s what I like to try to do with a lot of my bands’ music.
Your lyrics, the artwork, the music contain a lot of wacky ideas, how do you find inspiration?
Generally, ideas for lyrics and art take some time to pop into my head. I try not to force them too much until I have a pretty good idea for the framework of a song. For example, with the “Heliotians” artwork, I wanted something that would be easy to paint 200+ times, yet also capture the point of the album. The idea of a sun inside the Earth, depicted on the album cover worked out really well. It looks nice, it has the old trick of only becoming obvious when you see both sides of the jacket, and it only took about 20-30 minutes to make each cover. But as far as topics for lyrics, I like to try to stay somewhat vague with the lyrics, and sometimes I like making the listener unsure if the lyrics are meant as a joke or not. I also like having geometric or geographic puzzles in the album artwork, song titles, and lyrics.
Would you like to talk about the concept of "Heliotians", what inspired you? Do you already know how the story will develop in the next projects or will you create them at the moment?
The first thing was to come up with 7 album names that would each sound good on their own, and for which the titles could be combined in ways that also sound good and reflect the design of the seven album pyramid. I thought about this on and off for about a year before finally coming up with “Heliotians”, “Lunarians”, “Creek”, “Din”, the combination titles “Oceanarium” and “Cretin” (though maybe I should use “Creaked In”), and the title for the top of the pyramid “Creationarium.” The concept for “Heliotians” is the theory that the Earth is a hollow shell, with a small sun floating in the middle, and lands, oceans, and people living on the other side of the crust. This is actually a real theory, but it’s almost certainly not true. “Ulterior” is sort of about people digging their way to the other side, “Reverse Solarity” is about people flying in through holes in the north Pole, and “Saruned” is more about the concept in general.
The seven albums aren’t intended to have any lyrical themes in common. Actually I haven’t put much thought into singing on the next two albums to be released, even though musically, they’re well underway.
You've chosen to record much of the music of "Heliotians" in analogical. Why this choice? Was it difficult nowadays to go down this way?
I don’t know a lot about vinyl. I’ve heard people say that there’s not really a benefit to hearing music that was recorded digitally on vinyl. Since I knew I wanted to do the handmade artwork, I figured I ought to release it on vinyl, and then I figured we ought to try to record it analog, even though I knew it would be a lot of extra work to do so. I wasn’t sure it would sound “better”, but I thought it would at least sound “different”, which might be refreshing. We used a studio with analog recording equipment owned by Cliff Phelps, who also played guitar and sang a bit on the album. It definitely was more difficult to record this way, and I don’t think there was that much benefit. One thing analog purists sometimes neglect to consider is that, yes, although many of our favorite albums from the 1970’s were recorded on tape and have a nice sound, that doesn’t mean that if you record onto tape, you will have a nice sound too. Most of those old records also benefited from having a few knowledgeable engineers and producers with thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment, which is something I don’t think any band I’m in will have, unless I acquire those skills and equipment myself. So far, much to my pleasant surprise, nobody’s complained to me about the sound quality of “Heliotians”, even though we ashamedly had to convert the recordings back to fairly high-quality digital files when we couldn’t get a non-hissy mix using the analog equipment, and even though I had some big worries about whether the pressing plant was doing a good job with making the records.
Is it important for you to use a real Mellotron or do you think that it may be replaced by surrogates?
Having finally played a real one a few times, I think that although they are neat, and there are a few sounds you can get with a real one that I don’t think you can get with the software imitations, I’m fairly happy with the imitations. If I ever get rich, I probably would like to buy a real one, but it’s not a priority.
I have seen that in "Heliotians" you make use of Univox and Multivox synths, is there a reason why you chose these particular instruments?
The Univox synth is one that I found outside my apartment in Baltimore many years ago, just sitting there, covered in snow. So I brought it in and used it quite a lot on the album I was working on back then (“August in the Urals”). I got the Multivox at a used musical instruments store for about $40 a couple of years ago. It doesn’t have a wide variety of sounds, but I thought it fit the mood of this album, plus it was “analog.”
I understand that you don’t play live often, why?
It’s very difficult to find enough musicians who are willing and able to rehearse and perform. The music I like to release tends to be a bit complex and requires at least 4 or 5 people to perform well, so it’s a big hassle to get a group ready to perform it, and since the most we could realistically hope for (without a big concerted push) would be maybe 5 gigs in front of a maximum of 500 people, I don’t think it’s worth trying for. I would much rather spend my time now on recording and releasing albums. Someday I would really like to get a good group of musicians who can play some of it live and do a good job, but it’s not a priority right now.
Listening especially to "Heliotians", but the previous Deluge Grander albums as well, rather than the classic English major bands of the Seventies, the U.S. prog underground scene come to my mind (Mirthrandir, Babylon, Easter Island etc.), with very eclectic groups that knew how to combine so many original influences. What do you think?
Sure, I do like that Babylon album a lot, and some of the music on the Mirthrandir and Easter Island albums. “Heliotians” really was intended to be a moody “retro-prog” album. Sometimes I don’t like that label, but with this album I tried to embrace that style, for better or worse.